In life, an injured victim of someone else’s negligence might pursue a personal injury lawsuit to receive compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, and other losses. However, if that victim dies from their injuries, they still deserve justice, which is why wrongful death actions exist.
North Carolina law defines a wrongful death action as a civil case in which the victim’s death was caused by negligence, wrongful acts, or fault of another. When someone passes away, the decedent’s personal representative (usually a close family member) can file for monetary compensation in place of the personal injury lawsuit that the decedent would have filed.
While financial compensation can’t right the wrong of someone’s death, it can provide the victim’s family and loved ones with an important sense of emotional closure and some financial security that addresses the loss of what their loved one would have been able to provide.
How Wrongful Death Lawsuits Work
While someone’s death may be related to a corresponding criminal case, a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil case, which means the liability of the defendant is limited to financial compensation. The decedent’s personal representative is the only person who can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Note that a civil case and criminal case aren’t mutually exclusive: civil cases can be filed in addition to a corresponding, ongoing criminal case, and the criminal judgement can assign different penalties, such as jail time, to the at-fault parties.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit? Only an individual designated as the decedent’s personal representative can file a wrongful death claim as the plaintiff. If the decedent had a will, the personal representative is the executor named in the will. If the deceased person had no will, the person who qualifies as the administrator of the estate under the North Carolina intestate succession laws (which are the laws that govern who receives funds from the estate of a person who passes away without a will) is the personal representative. If the executor or administrator is unable or unwilling to serve as the personal representative, the court will appoint the public administrator to serve.
Who Are the Beneficiaries of the Lawsuit? North Carolina law dictates that only certain persons may receive the proceeds of a wrongful death lawsuit. These people are the individuals who would receive proceeds pursuant to the intestate succession laws. The proceeds do not go into the deceased person’s estate but rather pass outside of the estate, which prevents creditors of the estate from obtaining any of the proceeds. If the deceased person had a will, the person who qualifies under intestate succession could be different than the beneficiaries of the will.
What Are the Requirements? The plaintiff in a wrongful death case generally needs to prove two things to successfully pursue their claim. They need to:
- Prove that the defendant is the “cause in fact” of the victim’s death. This requirement is generally easy for the plaintiff to prove, as it only concerns whether the defendant was directly responsible for the victim’s death.
- Prove “proximate cause.” This second requirement is often more difficult to prove, as the plaintiff must demonstrate that the victim’s death was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions and that, therefore, the defendant should be held liable.
What Is the Statute of Limitations?
For most cases in North Carolina, a wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within two years of the date of the victim’s death. Although certain factors could extend the statute of limitations for a wrongful death case, it’s best not to count on this; instead, you should contact an experienced North Carolina wrongful death attorney as soon as possible so they can listen to your story and help you decide what your best course of action is.
Damages Recoverable in a Wrongful Death Action
The monetary compensation that victims receive after successfully pursuing a wrongful death claim is called “damages” in legal terminology. The idea behind these damages is that the defendant, if found to have acted negligently, must pay the plaintiff to address the losses and harm that resulted from their negligent actions (although in most cases, the defendant’s insurance company actually pays the damages).
North Carolina law dictates the various types of damages that courts can award to plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit. In a wrongful death case, the possible damages include:
- Medical expenses resulting from injuries
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Compensation for pain and suffering
- Loss of income
- Loss of the decedent’s services, protection, care, companionship, and guidance
In cases where the plaintiff can prove malice, willful conduct, or wanton conduct on the part of the defendant, courts may also assign punitive damages in addition to the damages listed above. Punitive damages are designed to punish the conduct that led to the victim’s death and provide a warning against others who might consider acting in a similar negligent manner.
Myers Law Firm: Advocating for Wrongful Death Victims and Their Loved Ones in North Carolina
Because North Carolina law limits the time frame to file a wrongful death lawsuit, it’s important to act quickly and contact an experienced attorney if you’ve lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence. At Myers Law Firm, we can help you determine whether your case may be filed as a wrongful death action and what your next steps are. Attorneys Matt and Lee Myers of Myers Law Firm have extensive experience dealing with wrongful death lawsuits and are here to stand up for the victims of negligence in the Mecklenburg County area.
We offer free initial consultations for all wrongful death cases, so call our offices at 888-376-2889 to discuss your case with one of our attorneys today at no risk to you. You can also fill out our brief contact form and we’ll get back to you right away.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.